Courtney Barnett, Kurt Vile team up for 'Lotta Sea Lice'

Two eclectic songwriters mesh styles for generally positive results

ae-CourtneyBarnettKurtVile-CourtesyMatadorRecords

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, though musicians of various styles, collaborate on "Lotta Sea Lice" with interesting, but mostly good results.

Courtesy Matador Records

It’s rare that two relatively new artists make a collaborative album together, and the collaboration between Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett is all the more interesting because the artists in question come from opposite ends of both the musical and personal spectrums. Yet Vile and Barnett, two of indie music’s up-and-comers, have combined their respective talents to put together “Lotta Sea Lice.” With Barnett being a rambunctious Australian rocker and Vile being a Philadelphia folk-psychedelic artist, the pairing was bound to produce a few tracks of merit. After meeting on tour a couple years ago, the two began a cycle of exchanging song ideas until finally meeting up in Melbourne to record the nine-song EP in only eight days.

In the midst of the indie music community’s growing excitement for the Barnett-Vile collaborative project, there was one lingering question — “Is this album even going to be good?” Both artists’ solo catalogues are undeniably phenomenal, but their distinctly different styles had fans on the fence about this album’s potential. The first singles from the record, “Over Everything” and “Continental Breakfast,” did well to quell any fears listeners may have had — “Over Everything” in particular sets a strong precedent for the direction of the album. There’s no romantic interplay here, as Vile has a wife and Barnett a domestic partner. Instead, the majority of the album takes place through a call-and-response reminiscent of a long-standing friendship.

From the outset of the opener — the aforementioned “Over Everything” — Barnett and Vile settle into a breezy, familiar rapport in discussing their personal songwriting processes. Vile casually sings, “When I was young I liked to hear music blarin’ / And I wasn’t carin’ to neuter my jams with earplugs / But these days I inhabitate a high-pitched ring over things / So these days I plug em up,” and Barnett charismatically responds, “When I’m strugglin’ with my songs I do the same thing too / And then I crunch ‘em up in headphones, cause why wouldn’t you?” The pair moseys on through the lethargic “Let It Go” and then takes on a song originally recorded by Barnett’s partner in “Fear Is Like a Forest.” 

Following those tracks, the middle of the album turns definitively murky, and it’s often hard to put a finger on the confounding variable because there are so many moving parts within the music. There is a distinct lethargy present in many of these songs, and while it works in tunes like “Let It Go” and “On Script,” it’s an ingredient best used sparingly. The lethargy can be overwhelming, but it’s not the only element that occasionally makes the music inaccessible. 

Vile and Barnett are both superb lyricists, but the delivery of said lyrics can be problematic. On certain songs, it feels as if it takes half an hour for a full line to be sung — surely a function of Vile’s relaxed approach to music. Additionally, an admittedly nitpicky complaint deals with the instrumentation of the album. There are, at times, an unusual number of instruments on tracks like “Peeping Tom,” and it feels almost too busy to enjoy. It’s easy to see why there is occasional friction between the two in their writing. Barnett’s comfort zone is a unique brand of tightly-composed intellectual rock, and Vile normally opts for country-folk with heavy doses of introspection and intricate instrumentation. 

Despite cuts that can best be described as ‘sonically muddy,’ the rockers do produce a refreshing variety of highlights on the album. They cover a variety of topics, from songwriting to enduring friendships to relaxing whilst doing drugs, and it feels wonderfully unfocused and personal. “Continental Breakfast” is a country-esque rumination on friendships that span the globe, and it’s a tune that perfectly showcases the partnership’s potential. 

Barnett sings during the chorus, “I cherish my intercontinental friendships / We talk it over continental breakfast / In a hotel in East Bumble-wherever / Somewhere on the sphere, around here,” Fans of Barnett will be happy to see she hasn’t yet abandoned her affinity for internal and slant rhyme, as she opens a later “Continental Breakfast” verse with, “But I'm feelin' inferior on the interior don't ya see / Guarded and sentimental and after all, it’s just a rental / Like better luck performin' telekinesis on a priestess.” 

By the time the duo reaches the end of the album in a bookend called “Untogether,” it feels like a journey cut short. Perhaps it was the rush in which the album was produced, but there is undeniably more territory for Barnett and Vile to explore. Albeit rocky and frictional at times, “Lotta Sea Lice” as a whole is an album which leaves a great impression and plants the seed for what is hopefully a continuing partnership between the songwriters. 

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